GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The campaign for the May ballot initiative to raise the sales tax and trigger road funding has begun to heat up, and we’re starting to see television ads from those on both sides of the issue.
Nuance employed in political advertisements means that most of them are at least partially true, but their accuracy can sometimes depend on interpretation. Such is the case of the ads from Safe Roads YES!, the group in favor of Proposal 1, and The Coalition Against Higher Taxes and Special Interest Deals, the group against it.
Proposal 1 is being billed as a road funding measure, but is not as straightforward as it may seem. It will do several things including eliminate the sales and use taxes on fuel, increase the portion of the use tax going to schools and perhaps mot notably raise the statewide sales tax from 6 percent to 7 percent.
If voters approve on Proposal 1, it will trigger other laws passed by the legislature that will devote $1.2 billion annually to roads.
Proponent groups are banking on the need for that funding — it can’t be denied Michigan’s roads are poor — to sell the proposal to voters.
SAFE ROADS YES!
One advertisement urging voters to pass Proposal 1 from Safe Roads YES! features a mother expressing concerns about driving on Michigan’s crumbling roads with her kids. She draws attention to plywood barriers under bridges across the state that keep debris from falling unto surface streets below. The governor has been handing out some of those chunks across the state to reinforce the point.
The mother ends the ad with this question:
“What’s to keep that from falling down, or even the whole bridge?”
It may be a legitimate question, but Michigan bridges have not been falling down with any frequency. So her thought, while perhaps a logical conclusion, it is not necessarily a reflection of an imminent danger.
Another ad from the same group features a bus driver and again pushes safety concerns.
“I’ve never seen roads this bad,” the bus driver says in the ad. “It’s scary. People swerving all over to miss potholes. What if they swerve into my kids or my bus?”
Again, the concerns expressed may be logical, but there is no indication that swerving vehicles are frequently the cause of crashes involving school buses.
But Safe Roads YES! does have an ad that includes an example of real damage and real danger.
“The car to the left of me kicked up a large chunk of the road and it smashed through our windshield,” a driver says in the ad.
Opponents say the ads are playing on people’s fear to encourage voters to raise their own taxes. Gov. Rick Snyder says that’s not true.
“It’s not about scaring people,” he said. “It’s about making sure everyone understands the situation.”
COALITION AGAINST HIGHER TAXES AND SPECIAL INTEREST DEALS
The Coalition Against Higher Taxes and Special Interest Deals has so far offered only one TV ad. It says that voters are being tricked into paying for a special interest.
“Lansing politicians say the tax is going to roads but nearly 40 percent of it goes to special interest,” the ad claims.
What exactly is that so-called special interest?
The package the state legislature came up with in the 11th hour of last year’s lame-duck session that included Proposal 1 would benefit a number of line items in state government: Roads, schools, low-income tax relief and others.
If the ad’s point is that Proposal 1 is not just about the roads, it is accurate. But which of the funding items it considers “special interest” isn’t clear, nor is it clear that others would agree with their assessment of what special interest is.
Another point about the ad — though it may count as nitpicking: The anti-Proposal 1 commercial is set in a supermarket-type environment, but Michigan’s sales tax doesn’t apply to food or prescription drugs. It does apply to nearly everything else we buy.
Safe Roads YES! has put out a handful of commercials, while the opposition group has only the one ad. It’s not yet clear what affect that will have on the vote.
A FREQUENT SUGGESTION
After this story aired on Tuesday, a viewer suggested eliminating jobs in the legislature and removing benefits. It’s a suggestion that seems to come up every time the state is in need of some more cash.
Putting aside the practicality of such a measure, it still wouldn’t free up a significant amount of money for roads. Each Michigan legislator makes about $75,000 per year. That figure times 148 — the number of lawmakers in the House and Senate — is $11.1 million per year. That’s nearly $1.19 billion short of the $1.2 billion annually the governor has said is needed.
So eliminating lawmaker salaries altogether would generate only about 1 percent of the money needed each year.
It goes to show how difficult it is to find the kind of money the roads need. It would not be impossible to do it from the current pool of funds, but it would requiring changing how some other parts of government are funded, and some wouldn’t be able to be funded at all.
Proposal 1 goes before voters on May 5.